The Reader’s Gazetteer: F

Back to England, and back to Barsetshire and Framley. Framley Parsonage provides some more detail of the geography of Barsetshire in general.

… that letter went into Barchester by the Courcy night mail-cart, which, on its road, passes through the villages of Uffley and Chaldicotes, reaching Barchester in time for the up mail-train to London. By that train, the letter was sent towards the metropolis as far as the junction of the Barset branch line, but there it was turned in its course, and came down again by the main line as far as Silverbridge; at which place, between six and seven in the morning, it was shouldered by the Framley footpost messenger, and in due course delivered at the Framley Parsonage exactly as Mrs. Robarts had finished reading prayers to the four servants.

The further I get through this abecedarium, the more I’m coming to appreciate the importance of plausible fictional systems as a component of plausible fictional locations.

Because novels are about humans, and humans create systems, and are part of systems, and are influenced by the systems that contain them and are around them. A village is a system; a town is a system; a country is a system.

One doesn’t necessarily need pages of infodumping explaining how it all works. The odd snippet of details can be enough to convey the idea of a coherent universe. In the Framley Parsonage extract above, it’s the postal system (which of course Trollope knew a lot about), which intersects with the rail system, and, here, meets the class system and the religious system. Framley Parsonage is not about the post or the trains. The systems that it’s really looking at are politics and money and friendship and marriage. But that little excursion along the Barset branch line situates it in a

It’s where systems meet landscape – are imposed upon a landscape, shape landscape, are shaped by a landscape – that we get the kind of place that I’m looking at in this series. Different landscapes mean different systems. Which brings us to The Nine Tailors, and Fenchurch St Paul. The landscape here is fen – reclaimed from the sea, flat and prone to flooding, dotted with churches built with wealth from the wool trade – and the system is drainage.

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“… Ah! look – over to the right – that must be Van Leyden’s Sluice that turns the tide up the Thirty-foot Drain – Denver Sluice again on a smaller scale. Let’s look at the map. See, here’s where the Drain joins the Wale, but it meets it at a higher level; if it wasn’t for the Sluice, all the Drain water would turn back up the Wale and flood the whole place. Bad engineering – but the seventeenth-century engineers had to work piecemeal and take things as they found ’em. That’s the Wale, coming down through Potter’s Lode from Fenchurch St Peter. I shouldn’t care for the sluice-keeper’s job – dashed lonely, I should think.”

This is a system that’s been put in place by humans, and is therefore vulnerable to the shortcomings of those humans.

“Nobody knows whose job this here sluice is, seemin’ly. The Fen Drainage Board, now – they say as it did oughter be done by the Wale Conservancy Board. And they say the Fen Drainage Board did oughter see to it. And now they’ve agreed to refer it, like, to the East Level Waterways Commission. But they ain’t made their report yet.”

It could be argued that we hear more than we strictly need to about the drainage around the Fenchurches. But I think it contributes to the book as a whole. Certainly I would find it difficult to describe what drains into what and where floods or doesn’t flood as a result, but I come away with a sense of a vast landscape imperfectly controlled, and when, at the climax of the book, it plays its part, I believe in it unreservedly. (I feel much the same about the bell-ringing; I let my eyes pass over the page without feeling any particular need to understand what’s going on.)

Fenchurch St Paul itself has two pubs and a Big House and, set a little way off, on a hill (this is important later), a church, and it’s a very plausible fenland village. I’m quoting the description of the church, because it’s lovely:

At the first glance he felt himself sobered and awe-stricken by the noble proportions of the church, in whose vast spaces the congregation – though a good one for so small a parish in the dead of a winter’s night – seemed almost lost. The wide nave and shadowy aisles, the lofty span of the chancel arch – crossed, though not obscured, by the delicate fan-tracery and crenellated moulding of the screen – the intimate and cloistered loveliness of the chancel, with its pointed arcading, graceful ribbed vault and five narrow east lancets, led his attention on and focused it first upon the remote glow of the sanctuary. Then his gaze, returning to the nave, followed the strong yet slender shafting that sprang fountain-like from floor to foliated column-head, spraying into the light, wide arches that carried the clerestory. And there, mounting to the steep pitch of the roof, his eyes were held entranced with wonder and delight. Incredibly aloof, flinging back the light in a dusky shimmer of bright hair and gilded out-spread wings, soared the ranked angels, cherubim and seraphim, choir over choir, from corbel and hammer-beam floating face to face uplifted.

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Later we learn that the angels have in the current vicar’s tenure been restored with new gilt, which made me raise my eyebrows a little. I would be surprised to hear of a church doing that these days; but then fashions in church upkeep change – which is itself an important point.

Detective stories often oblige the reader with a plan of important locations. My copy of The Nine Tailors has three: the two showing roads and drains, and the church:

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They’re particularly useful in detective fiction because they allow readers to follow the action and authors to make sure that all the characters are in the right place at the right time. Some people use them to make a fictional location seem more real. But Fenchurch St Paul feels quite real enough already.

Books referred to in this post

Framley Parsonage, Anthony Trollope

The Nine Tailors, Dorothy L. Sayers

The Reader’s Gazetteer: E

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The second post in this Dickson McCunn mini-series takes him, and us, to Evallonia. We’ve left Dalquharter; we’ve left Glasgow. But, for the duration of Castle Gay at least, we are still in Scotland.

Buchan does a thorough job of setting up Evallonia, taking advantage of the disarray at the end of the Great War to suggest that it was always there; we just hadn’t been paying attention. In the middle of the newspaper magnate Mr Thomas Carlyle Craw’s biographical note he reminds us:

It will be remembered that a republic had been established there in 1919, apparently with the consent of its people. But rifts had since appeared within the lute. There was a strong monarchist party among the Evallonians, who wished to reinstate their former dynasty, at present represented by an attractive young Prince, and at the same time insisted on the revision of Evallonian boundaries. To this party Thomas gave eloquent support. He believed in democracy, he told his millions of readers, and a kingdom (teste Britain) was as democratic a thing as a republic: if the Evallonians wanted a monarch they should be allowed to have one: certain lost territories, too, must be restored, unless they wished to see Evallonia Irredenta a permanent plague-spot. His advocacy made a profound impression in the south and east of Europe, and to Evallonian monarchists the name of Craw became what that of Palmerston was once to Italy and Gladstone to Bulgaria.

My father skipped most of this chapter when reading the book to me as a child, so we could get straight to the action. But I rather think he included this paragraph. It establishes Evallonia in the guise of telling us more about Mr Craw; it gives us a vague geographical location; in describing current politics it suggests the past; and, invoking real names and real countries, slots it neatly into real history.

Mr Craw is repaid for his interest in Evallonia with a visit. Several visits. But the action doesn’t leave Scotland. Evallonia comes to him.

In the next book we go there. Incidentally, if I had to credit one book and one book alone for my desire to go wandering around Europe, it would be The House of the Four Winds. It’s this passage that did it:

The milestones in his journey had been the wines. Jaikie was no connoisseur, and indeed as a rule preferred beer, but the vintage of a place seemed to give him the place’s flavour and wines made a diary of his pilgrimage. His legs bore him from valley to valley, but he drank himself from atmosphere to atmosphere. He had begun among strong burgundies which needed water to make a thirst-quenching drink, and continued through the thin wines of the hills to the coarse red stuff of south Germany and a dozen forgotten little local products. In one upland place he had found a drink like the grey wine of Anjou, in another a sweet thing like Madeira, and in another a fiery sherry. Each night at the end of his tramp he concocted a long drink and he stuck manfully to the juice of the grape; so, having a delicate palate and a good memory, he had now behind him a map of his track picked out in honest liquors.

Each was associated with some vision of sun-drenched landscape. He had been a month on the tramp, but he seemed to have walked through continents. As he half dozed at the open window, it was pleasant to let his fancy run back along the road. It had led him through vineyards grey at the fringes with dust, through baking beet-fields and drowsy cornlands and solemn forests; up into wooded hills and flowery meadows, and once or twice almost into the jaws of the great mountains; through every kind of human settlement, from hamlets which were only larger farms to brisk burghs clustered round opulent town houses or castles as old as Charlemagne; by every kind of stream – unfordable great rivers, and milky mountain torrents, and reedy lowland waters, and clear brooks slipping through mint and water-cress. He had walked and walked, seeking to travel and not to arrive, and making no plans except that his face was always to the sunrise.

It takes him – this is the first chapter, so it’s hardly a spoiler – to Evallonia. Which is all set for a revolution, but nobody can quite agree on what it ought to look like. It has a youth movement, Juventus, which I suppose is what the Hitler Jugend might have been like had it somehow managed to get rid of Hitler and become its own thing: ‘… no less than a resurgence of the spirit of the Evallonian nation,’ says Count Paul Jovian.

He explained how it had run through the youth of the country like a flame in stubble. ‘We are a poor people,’ he said, ‘though not so poor as some, for we are closer to the soil, and less dependent upon others. But we have been stripped of some of our richest parts where industry flourished, and many of us are in great poverty. Especially it is hard for the young, who see no livelihood for them in their fathers’ professions, and can find none elsewhere. Evallonia, thanks to the jealous Powers, has been reduced to too great an economic simplicity, and has not that variety of interests which a civilized society requires. Also there is another matter. We have always made a hobby of our education, as in your own Scotland. Parents will starve themselves to send their sons to Melina to the university, and often a commune itself will pay for a clever boy. What is the consequence? We have an educated youth, and no work for it. We have created an academic proletariat and it is distressed and bitter.’

Although Jaikie notes that it doesn’t quite sound like his friend talking. You can’t quite believe what anybody tells you about Evallonia.

(I always have to check the publication date on this book. 1935, though my Penguin copy says 1925. This would be impossible in terms of Jaikie’s age if nothing else: he can’t be older than about nine in Huntingtower, just after the War.)

I would still have difficulty pointing to Evallonia on a map (‘er… somewhere in the Balkans…?’) but Buchan does a very good job of making me believe that if I set out walking south and east, not really bothered about where I was going, I’d have a good chance of ending up there.

There are, because this is Buchan, some glorious landscapes, but I’m going to save most of them for towns that begin with letters later in the alphabet. Here, though, is Jaikie looking back towards the frontier:

His eye crossed the Rave and ran along a line of hills ten miles or so to the west. They were only foot-hills, two thousand feet high at the most, but beyond he had a glimpse of remote mountains. He saw to his left the horseshoe in which Tarta and its Schloss lay – he could not see the pass that led to Kremisch, since it was hidden by a projecting spur. To the north the hills seemed to dwindle away into a blue plain. Just in front of him there was a deeply-recessed glen, the containing walls of which were wooded to the summit, but at the top the ridge was bare, and there was cleft-shaped like the back-sight of a rifle. In that cleft the sun was most spectacularly setting.

Ivar followed his gaze. ‘That is what we call the Wolf’s Throat. It is the nearest road to the frontier. There in that cleft is the western gate of Evallonia.’

Finding your way to a place is one thing. Finding your way out again can be another thing entirely.

Books referred to in this post

Castle Gay, John Buchan

The House of the Four Winds, John Buchan

 

The Reader’s Gazetteer: D

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D and E will both feature books from John Buchan’s Dickson McCunn series. I’m not going to apologise for this: I can think of few authors who are so good at landscapes, either real or imaginary, and, if you don’t know the place yourself, it’s difficult to tell where the seam is between the two.

D is for Dalquharter, but it’s interesting to see how Dickson McCunn gets there. He starts in Glasgow – real enough – and takes a train.

A little after midday he descended from a grimy third-class station whose name I have forgotten. In the village near-by he purchased some new-baked buns and ginger biscuits…

We’re already in imaginary countryside. Dickson stays overnight in a village called Cloncae, which Google optimistically suggest might be an anagram of ‘Conceal’, and passes through Kilchrist, which also seems to be fictional. Then he reaches Kirkmichael, which might or might not be this village, and spends the night at the Black Bull before setting out again:

Westward there ran out a peninsula in the shape of an isosceles triangle, of which his present high-road was the base. At a distance of a mile or so a railway ran parallel to the road, and he could see the smoke of a goods train waiting at a tiny station islanded in acres of bog. Thence the moor swept down to meadows and scattered copses, above which hung a thin haze of smoke which betokened a village. Beyond it were further woodlands, not firs but old shady trees, and as they narrowed to a point the gleam of two tiny estuaries appeared on either side. He could not see the final cape, but he saw the sea beyond it, flawed with catspaws, gold in the afternoon sun, and on it a small herring smack flapping listless sails.

And then he gets the map out:

The peninsula was called the Cruives – an old name apparently, for it was in antique lettering. He vaguely remembered that ‘cruives’ had something to do with fishing, doubtless in the two streams which flanked it. One he had already crossed, the Laver, a clear tumbling water springing from green hills; the other, the Garple, descended from the rougher mountains to the south. The hidden village bore the name of Dalquharter, and the uncouth syllables awoke some vague recollection in his mind.

By this point I’m very happily convinced. I’ve had my railway journey (and some extra trains), I have a reasonable idea how I’d get there from the real world, and I have been shown the map.

Dickson encounters a poet, John Heritage, who he’s been avoiding, and they speculate about Dalquharter and Dickson’s psyche before heading towards the village.

In front of groves of birch and rowan smoked the first houses of a tiny village. The road had become a green ‘loaning’, on the ample margin of which cattle grazed. The moorland still showed itself in spits of heather, and some distance off, where a rivulet ran in a hollow, there were signs of a fire and figures near it…

… There were not more than a dozen whitewashed houses, all set in little gardens of wallflower and daffodil and early fruit blossom. A triangle of green filled the intervening space, and in it stood an ancient wooden pump. There was no schoolhouse or kirk; not even a post-office – only a red box in a cottage side. Beyond rose the high wall and the dark trees of the demesne, and to the right up a by-road which clung to the park edge stood a two-storeyed building which bore the legend ‘The Cruives Inn’.

And we’re off. Up until now, Dickson was on holiday; from here on it, it’s an adventure. And this, I think, is why the McCunn stories are my favourites. I don’t have mysterious men getting murdered in my London flat, and I don’t get recruited for spying missions. But I do go on holiday. I haven’t had a holiday turn into an adventure as yet, though there was that time I found myself in Vienna, explaining to an opera singer how to go about organising a strike…

Come to think of it, that’s probably John Buchan’s fault, too. More on that next time.

Books referred to in this post

Huntingtower, John Buchan

The Reader’s Gazetteer: C

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Thomas Hardy makes it easy.  Casterbridge, Christminster, you’ll find them on the map inside the front of every Wessex novel. And you can lay the map of Wessex down over the map of south-west England and work out how to get to any of these places. At least, you could, if they were real. Which they sort of are, and sort of aren’t. Hardy calls Wessex “a merely realistic dream country”, or so Wikipedia tells me.

There’s a lot of travelling in Hardy’s books, whether it’s emigrating to Canada or going to market. People come from places and they go to places; they pass through places on their way. And the landscape is vividly described, and feels coherent:

So, stealing out of the hamlet he descended into the same hollow which had witnessed his punishment in the morning, never swerving an inch from the path, and climbing up the long and tedious ascent on the other side, till the track joined the highway by a little clump of trees. Here the ploughed land ended, and all before him was bleak open down.

Not a soul was visible on the hedgeless highway, or on either side of it, and the white road seemed to ascend and diminish till it joined the sky. At the very top it was crossed at right angles by a green ‘ridgeway’ – the Icknield Street and original Roman road through the district. This ancient track ran east and west for many miles, and down almost to within living memory had been used for driving flocks and herds to fairs and markets. But it was now neglected and overgrown.

From this, and other passages through the Wessex novels, one might almost be able to put the map together without knowledge of the real-world equivalents or a sight of the map of Dorset and Hampshire, Somerset and Berkshire and Oxfordshire and Devon.

Here are Susan and Elizabeth-Jane Henchard approaching Casterbridge:

‘What an old-fashioned place it seems to be!’ said Elizabeth-Jane, while her silent mother mused on other things than topography. ‘It is huddled all together; and it is shut in by a square wall of trees, like a plot of garden ground by a box-edging.’

Its squareness was, indeed, the characteristic which most struck the eye in this antiquated borough, the borough of Casterbridge – at that time, recent as it was, untouched by the faintest sprinkle of modernism. It was compact as a box of dominoes. It had no suburbs – in the ordinary sense. Country and town met at a mathematical line.

To birds of the more soaring kind Casterbridge must have appeared on this fine evening as a mosaic-work of subdued reds, browns, greys, and crystals, held together by a rectangular frame of deep green. To the level eye of humanity it stood as an indistinct mass behind a dense stockade of limes and chestnuts, set in the midst of miles of rotund down and concave field. The mass became gradually dissected by the vision into towers, gables, chimneys and casements, the highest glazings shining bleared and bloodshot with the coppery fire they caught from the belt of sunlit cloud in the west.

From the centre of each side of this tree-bound square ran avenues east, west, and south into the wide expanse of cornland and coomb to the distance of a mile or so.

And then we enter the town itself, and the impressionist bird’s-eye view resolves into detail, and the plot gets going. The social geography is slotted into the physical geography; we learn who drinks at which public house. Durnover; the market place; Mixen Lane: Casterbridge is very credible.

I’m trying to remember whether I’ve ever been to Dorchester and, if so, whether it looked like that. (Although the narrative explains later that Things Have Changed between the date of the action and the date of writing, so it probably wouldn’t have.) I thought I had, but on reflection I suspect I was thinking of Bridport.

I have, however, definitely been to Oxford. Here’s Jude Fawley’s first sight of Christminster:

Some way within the limits of the stretch of landscape, points of light like the topaz gleamed. The air increased in transparency with the lapse of minutes, till the topaz points showed themselves to be the vanes, windows, wet roof slates, and other shining spots upon the spires, domes, freestone-work, and varied outlines that were faintly revealed. It was Christminster, unquestionably; either directly seen, or miraged in the peculiar atmosphere.

Even without the map, even without the clue of the name (Oxford’s cathedral – ‘minster’ – doubles as the chapel of Christ’s College) it’s easy to make the connection with the ‘dreaming spires’ of cliché.

How to get there? A little find+replace, together with traveline.info, makes it easy enough. For Casterbridge, take the train direct from London Waterloo (ultimate destination Budmouth); alternatively, go from Paddington and change at Castle Cary or Westbury (again to a train heading for Budmouth). For Christminster, take the direct train from London Marylebone – or go from Paddington again, changing at Aldbrickham this time.

Other Cs on the map of Wessex are Chalk Newton, Chaseborough, Cliff Martin and Cresscombe, but they’re only bit players, mentioned in passing if at all.

You might ask why I’m using Casterbridge and Christminster now, rather than waiting for W for Wessex. The truth is, I’m not really convinced by the whole of Wessex as an entity, even broken up into North and Upper and Mid and South and Outer and Lower, but I can believe in the individual towns and villages, and the landscapes around and between them. Plus, C comes a lot earlier in the alphabet…

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That ammonite came from Charmouth, which does not have a Wessex equivalent, but is the right neck of the woods.

Books referred to in this post

The Mayor of Casterbridge, Thomas Hardy

Jude the Obscure, Thomas Hardy

and the other Wessex novels

The Reader’s Gazetteer: B

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Of course it has to be Barchester. Other fictional Bs that come to mind are bit-part players: Borduria in Tintin, or Belsornia in the Chalet School series. But Barchester is one of the big ones. In terms of its significance, that is; the whole point of it is that it isn’t exactly a bit city.

Anthony Trollope is a little bit vague about the precise location of Barchester at the beginning of The Warden:

The Rev. Septimus Harding was, a few years since, a beneficed clergyman residing in the cathedral town of ––––; let us call it Barchester. Were we to name Wells or Salisbury, Exeter, Hereford, or Gloucester, it might be presumed that something personal was intended; and as this tale will refer mainly to the cathedral dignitaries of the town in question, we are anxious that no personality may be suspected. Let us presume that Barchester is a quiet town in the West of England, more remarkable for the beauty of its cathedral and the antiquity of its monuments than for any commercial prosperity; that the west end of Barchester is the cathedral close, and that the aristocracy of Barchester are the bishop, dean, and canons, with their respective wives and daughters.

But that doesn’t matter; it’s all we need to get the story going. In The Warden, it’s the personalities and politics that drive things: the close, the clergy, the councillors.  Trollope shows us a city that’s been minding its own business, getting along quite happily in its own way, sorting out or ignoring its petty troubles and corruptions – until someone comes in from outside and shakes it all up. And ‘outside’ means, of course, ‘London’. John Bold, the reformer, is a Barchester man, but he has been away to London and come back again with ideas:

His passion is the reform of all abuses; state abuses, church abuses, corporation abuses (he has got himself elected a town councillor of Barchester, and has so worried three consecutive mayors, that it became somewhat difficult to find a fourth), abuses in medical practice, and general abuses in the world at large.

In very broad terms, Barchester just has to not be London, and to be influenced by the events and people (Tom Towers, for example) that happen in or come from London. Nothing more than that is necessary, and, broadly speaking, that’s all we get. There is, however, one mention of a London terminal, and that terminal is Paddington.

As we work our way through the series, the location stabilises. We travel further afield around the city of Barchester. The internal geography of Barsetshire emerges, and is sufficiently consistent for the folk at Penguin to have produced the map on the endpapers of the Penguin Classics edition in the photograph. We learn in Framley Parsonage that Exeter exists in this universe, and so can’t be Barchester. Then, in The Small House at Allington, Johnny Eames also goes to London, and also arrives at Paddington. That puts Barchester firmly on the Great Western Railway, and certainly rules out Salisbury.

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(These were library copies, and it took me a while to realise that the disintegrating Gothic tracery on the cover of The Warden was down to wear and tear, rather than a comment by the cover designer. One could certainly read some symbolic significance into that…)

In my head Barchester lies south of the Severn rather than on it, but that might just be because I first read The Warden when I was at university in Exeter. Hereford just feels far too far north. The real-life scandal that inspired the plot of The Warden happened, of course, at Winchester: Hiram’s Hospital bears a remarkable similarity to the hospital of St Cross (where, oddly enough, I was baptised rather more than a century later). The reader will notice that Winchester is not mentioned at the beginning of The Warden. Then again, it’s even more hassle to get to from Paddington than Salisbury.

Later in this series I’ll be examining other cathedral cities, and I’ll be speculating just what it is about the West of England that makes it so attractive to the constructors of fictional towns. In the meantime, however, it’s only right to salute Anthony Trollope and the one that, in many ways, started it all.

Books referred to in this post

The Warden, Anthony Trollope

Framley Parsonage, Anthony Trollope

The Small House at Allington, Anthony Trollope

King Ottakar’s Sceptre, Hergé

various Chalet School titles, Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

 

New blog series: The Reader’s Gazetteer

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Earlier this week I updated my ‘About’ page to add a little about what visitors can expect to find on this site. I wrote that the blog is largely about ‘other people’s books, travel, and the writing process’.

This blog series is going to deal with two of those things. I’m going to do an abedecedarium – an A to, I hope, Z of fictional places in other people’s books, and speculate as to how one might find them if they were real. Ever since my father read me The Prisoner of Zenda I’ve been fascinated by places that sound as if they might exist, but don’t, by books that convince me that I could take a train or just walk over the border into somewhere that’s only real in the author’s head, and now mine.

How am I going to choose these places? It’s going to come down to these two questions:

Do I believe in the place? Do geography and politics seem plausible?

Do I believe that I, a normal human being with no powers more sophisticated than being able to hold a map the right way up and knowing how to use the Deutsche Bahn app, could get to the place?

I am not going to be fussy about genre. This series will range across detective stories, fanfiction, teen books, thrillers, classics, possibly even the occasional school story. Sci-fi and fantasy are less likely to be included, for obvious reasons: if I need a spaceship to get there, it’s not going in. Portal fantasy is out, as well. With (at time of planning) one honourable exception.

I am restricting myself to textual canons, though I’m throwing in Tintin for old times’ sake. Much as I adore The Merry Widow, you will not find Pontevedro here (or even Marsovia, as the first English translation had it). Nor am I including the deliberately silly. Barataria and Pfennig-Halbfennig would be out anyway under the ‘book canons’ rule, but you also won’t find Norman Hunter’s Kumdown Upwardz, Gadzooks, or Urgburg-under-Ug. (Which is a pity, because it’s a bit of a struggle to find fictional places beginning with U.)

Inevitably, I will miss some places, and it will probably be because I haven’t read their books. If it turns out that one of them is your favourite, I apologise. I’ll be inviting people to add their own recommendations in comments every week.

I’ll be sharing pictures of the books, and maps where they have them, and I’ll be talking about what makes me believe in the place. I’ll probably also wander onto byways involving my own travels in real places, and my own travails coming up with fictional ones.

Want to join me? You’d be very welcome. Grab a toothbrush and your passport, and I’ll see you back here next Saturday.